Esperanza Spalding
Radio Music Scoiety
Heads Up

Let the wailing and hand-wringing begin. The phenomenal young jazz bassist/singer/arranger/producer, who scored an upset victory over Justin Bieber in taking the Grammy Award for Best New Artist in 2011, now has a follow-up to the CD that cemented her stature, Chamber Music Society. This year’s Society is unabashedly commercial. The small combo feel that brought her here is gone, instrumentation is noticeably more electronic (including her fine bass solos), and lyrics are all-English instead of the previous linguistic paella. Not only is Spalding perched atop a high-octane boombox on this album cover, Concord Music readily told us that there will be videos for all 12 tracks on the new release.

Be forewarned: It will be nearly impossible to escape the chart-topping sounds of the catchiest cuts—“Cinnamon Tree,” “Black Gold” and Spalding’s bouquet to her hometown of Portland, Ore., “City of Roses.” Once the hooks of these songs grab your eardrums, they will be difficult to dislodge. But a careful listen soon discloses that these 10 Spalding originals, plus covers of tunes by Stevie Wonder and Wayne Shorter, are anything but pop pap. Spalding’s latest vocal and horn arrangements have the polish of the finest gems by the Manhattan Transfer, Chicago or Steely Dan, and her song structures, alternating discursive sections with refrains, have a Michael Franks solidity beneath their spontaneity.

All-star cameos include Joe Lovano blowing on Wonder’s “I Can’t Help It,” Jack DeJohnette setting the groove for “Let Her” and Lionel Loueke applying his special scatting atop a silky guitar solo on “Black Gold.” More often, Chamber Music alums Leo Genovese on keyboards and Ricardo Vogt on guitar are at the forefront to fine effect. American Music Program, a 13-piece horn ensemble, appears on three cuts, including “Hold on Me,” Spalding’s bluesiest song, but it’s the Savannah Children’s Choir that lifts “Black Gold” and gives it true anthemic power before it memorably subsides into lullaby tenderness with Spalding’s vocal coda. You can easily imagine the video scenario for that track.

Opening the set, “Radio Song” is Spalding’s most impressive composition, while “Smile Like That,” closing things out, may be her strongest vocal performance. It’s only when Spalding veers into public issues for the first time that her lack of seasoning shows. “Land of the Free” pales as a protest song when compared with Dylan’s wrath on a similar subject in “Hurricane,” and “Endangered Species,” with its coolness and obliquity, never attains the solemnity of Paul Simon’s “7 O’Clock News/Silent Night” as an antiwar statement. Both do have their moments, demonstrating that if Spalding wishes to straddle the realms of jazz, classical and pop, her talent has ample range.


  • Aug 25, 2012 at 02:55PM Brian Whistler

    I think you're giving Esperanza Spalding short shrift re her talents as an emerging songwriter. The lyrics you chose to illustrate her lack of ability are the weakest on the CD, but then, you can point to nearly any jazz lyrics peneed to a pithy jazz instrumental and find plenty of awkward moments. the exception being John Hendricks perhaps. Its an awkward genre, jazz lyrics. She does far better on her own tunes and while she may fall far short of being a Joni Mitchell, she is certainly already on par with songwriters liike Stevie Wonder who are music than lyrically oriented. By the way, the anti war song you referred to was not Endangered Species, the Shorter penned eco song she eventually wrote lyrics for (she was performed it as a vocalise for a while,) but her own original, "Vague Suspicions" which is probably her most mature lyric writing to date. No, she's no Paul Simon (but then, who is?) and it is doubtful she will ever be, but she does show promise if you listen to her evolution as a song writer. I think she may surprise us down the line.

  • Nov 16, 2012 at 12:47AM JazzBebopJustice

    I love this album! Esperanza is great! The album is very good and has nice lyrics and even more beautiful musical elements from Spalding herself as well as from many of the other musicians.

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